Educate Yourself About Pro-Ana and Pro-Mia Sites
Shannon Bonnette may be the exception to what experts say is the rule. She claims that pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia sites on the Internet, also known as pro-ana and pro-mia, are what made her realize that she had a serious problem and if she didn't get help she was probably going to die.
"It was the dangers, not the tips or tricks or even the 'thinspiration' that I was unaware of even in my late teens and early 20s," says Bonnette, now 27. "For example, I never really considered the possibility that an anorexic could drop dead from an electrolyte imbalance. I always figured you slowly starved until you died, and I'd know long before I was in that much danger."
What's most chilling about Bonnette's epiphany is that it didn't come until she was in her early 20s, just when the Internet was becoming readily accessible to the general population. Her eating disorder started when she was 8.
History of Pro-Ana and Pro-Mia Sites
One of the most alluring features of the Internet is its ability to bring together like-minded people for support and encouragement of their lifestyles and hobbies. In some cases, these may not be lifestyles or hobbies that are particularly healthy or socially acceptable, such as anorexia and bulimia. Dr. Edward Cumella, director of research for Remuda Ranch, a treatment center for eating disorders, says anorexics use these sites to validate their anorexia and share their experiences. Because their disorder is so all-encompassing, no one but another anorexic can appreciate what they're going through.
"Many people with eating disorders, especially advanced eating disorders, are isolated by choice," says Dr. Cumella. "At first, people say they look great but as their weight loss continues, they begin to look thin and unhealthy and the same people who complimented them begin to be repelled by their appearance. The anorexic begins to feel that no one understands them because everyone around them is telling them they have lost too much weight. They are looking for someone to understand the energy they put into being anorexic."
In the early days of the Internet, these sites became very popular very quickly, but by 2001 they were also becoming increasingly visible. That's the year that pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia Web sites were featured both in Time Magazine and on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Soon after, Yahoo and many other site hosts large and small shut down existing pro-ana/mia sites and banned new sites.
Nowadays, they're harder to find, but they do still exist. Most of them feature tips for very low calorie eating, tricks for hiding weight loss and avoiding detection and treatment, and "thinspiration" in the form of photos of very thin women – almost all of whom are well-known celebrities such as Christina Aguilera, Lindsay Lohan and Calista Flockhart.
The dangers of these sites, says Dr. Alison Friedman, a licensed psychologist and supervisor of clinical training at the Renfrew Center, a nonprofit organization for education, prevention, research and treatment of eating disorders, is that not only can they push someone over the brink who may be on the verge of developing an eating disorder, but they can also undermine ongoing treatment.
"What I see is that they pooh-pooh those girls whose families and friends are trying to get them help," says Dr. Friedman. "There's really an us versus them mentality, and this is particularly difficult with eating disorders because the person suffering from them is already generally very resistant to treatment.
Walking a Thin Line
Since the crackdown of 2001, many of the pro-ana sites have made the transition from being pro-ana to being pro-recovery, but experts say sites that claim to be helpful, such as Bonnette's site, Makayla's Healing Place, don't make a strong enough anti-anorexia statement. In addition, the few pro-ana sites still out there defend their existence by styling anorexia and bulimia as lifestyle choices rather than dangerous conditions that can kill.
Dr. Friedman says pro-ana sites are taking less direct approaches to avoid being shut down by their site host companies. "There's been so much media attention and so much censorship that these sites are trying to find ways to navigate through that," says Dr. Friedman. "They accomplish that by saying that they don't advocate an unhealthy lifestyle, but they don't condemn it either. They're saying that if that's what you do, it's OK, and that will perpetuate the problem."
Bonnette says that her site is deliberately non-judgmental because she feels that's the best way to reach an anorexic. She says they usually are dealing with so many people already who are trying to force them to eat or to recover that if she took a more judgmental tone it would scare them away and they would have nowhere to turn but strongly pro-ana sites. Her contention is joining a forum at a site like hers is better than face-to-face group therapy.
"I believe that sufferers need to be able to speak openly, in a group setting among other sufferers, in order to recover," says Bonnette. "I believe the Internet is a better place to accomplish this because there is less of the 'competition' that occurs emotionally when individuals with eating disorders are all packed into the same room. That is a brutal experience, because you think everyone is thinner than you, even if they clearly are not."
Face to Face
People who've been there, like Bonnette, and experts such as Drs. Cumella and Friedman will probably never agree on the good versus evil arguments of online sites that either promote or don't condemn anorexia outright. But there are some things they they do agree upon that parents can do to help a child avoid an eating disorder or to get her help if she seems to be developing one:
- Modeling Behavior. Bonnette had a very loving, supportive family, but her mother did not set a good example of healthy eating, which Bonnette suspects may have been at the root of her early eating problems. Dr. Cumella says that mothers obsessing constantly about weight are modeling poor body image for their daughter. Also, focusing on the child's looks or diet can cause anxiety. Instead, sit down as a family and serve well-balanced meals while promoting moderate, healthy exercise.
- Communicate. Understand the dangers of eating disorders and be sure your children are aware of them. As Bonnette points out, she didn't realize an eating disorder could kill her until she started visiting pro-ana sites. Your children should hear that from you. Dr. Cumella points out that anorexia can also cause long-term bone loss and infertility and that most girls aren't aware of that either.
- Take Action. If you suspect your child is developing an eating disorder, it's particularly important to talk to them about the health risks. If you think they already have one, see a counselor and start helping your child work toward recovery. Bonnette, as well as Drs. Friedman and Cumella, feel that if your child is visiting pro-ana sites, an eating disorder is probably already present.
- Create a Family Space. Drs. Friedman and Cumella both note that kids probably
shouldn't be allowed to hole up by themselves with a computer. Keep it in a common
room, such as the family room or kitchen, where they can be easily monitored without
necessarily feeling like they're being spied upon. This makes it easier for parents
to track Internet sites their children are visiting. Also, time with the family
in the same place, even if everyone's not all necessarily doing the same thing, goes a long way toward promoting overall